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Monstrous males/femme fatales

- Leanne Rencken

Gender portrayals in animated films have come a long way, which is important, as animation can be a tool for positive social change.

The first question that Gillian Wittstock, film fundi and Lecturer in Wits Interdisciplinary and Cultural Studies (IACS) department asks her students is which animated film had the biggest impact on them as a child.

Her favourite response to the question, and the most surprising she received from this year’s cohort, was randomly, Ed, Edd n Eddy, because, as the student who nominated the cartoon series elaborated, “it showed the hustle, like how important it is to make money, how to adapt, and how to become an entrepreneur”.

This was an option and an interpretation that Wittstock hadn’t yet considered, but which goes to show, whether it is an emotional, cultural or educational connection, animation as a medium is certainly effective, and way more than the sum of its intricately illustrated parts.

“Every student could come up with an animation that profoundly impacted on the way they perceive the world,” she says. “It is something that pop culture does. It is so all-encompassing that we get influenced by it daily, and it stays with us for the rest of our lives.”

Pop invasion

With the proliferation of viewing devices and streaming platforms, it is easy for both adults and children to be bombarded by ‘invasive’ pop culture messaging that dictates gender stereotypes as the norm. We don’t question these messages enough – especially when it comes to animation, as this is likely the first medium with which children typically engage. 

“We’re passive consumers, and we don’t really think about the meaning and ideology behind the films that young children are watching. I would love for them to see shows that promote inclusivity and equality within genders, rather than shows that promote othering and exclusivity,” adds Wittstock.

Wittstock focuses much of her academic energy on animation. It is the reason why she recently published a chapter in the book Gender, Supernatural Beings, and the Liminality of Death: Monstrous Males/Fatal Females.

The chapter she submitted is titled The Animated Dead: Reimagining the Beautiful Corpse in Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, and is based on a portion of her Master’s thesis, as well as some of the material that she has developed with her colleagues in the Department.

She is obviously delighted to have her work featured in this international collection of essays, and experienced the writing process as a cathartic distraction from Covid-19. “I feel like I achieved something in a really difficult time,” she explains. “Something that I thought was worthy and needed to be discussed.”

Corpse Bride | Curiosity 13: #Gender ©

Gender evolution

When it comes to gender and the portrayal of the female in animated film, Wittstock has much to say. She believes that within a Westernised context, representations of gender have come far since the early years of animation, particularly when it comes to heteronormative ideas of gender.

“Each wave of feminism has brought with it a great change in society, and these shifts in gender ideologies have bled into popular culture, and subsequently animated film,” she explains.

“If we look at the evolution of Disney’s princesses you can see a massive shift in gender representation. The pathetic and feeble portrayal of Snow White in Disney’s first feature length animation Snow White and the Seven Dwarves has been radically overthrown in their more recent animated offerings, and can be seen explicitly through protagonists, Anna and Elsa (Frozen), Moana (Moana) and Raya (Ray and the Last Dragon).”

Pixar has had a similar journey of growth, although that studio is providing new guidance on masculinity and manhood within a post-feminist world.

“I think fondly here of the 2001 film Monsters, Inc.,” says Wittstock. “Sully the Monster is represented as a paternal figure whose masculine presence is loving, kind, emotional and protective.”

Wittstock cautions that there is still much to be reimagined and envisioned regarding gender. 

“Although there have been great leaps in representation, I believe that as we continue to develop and practise our ideas surrounding gender identity, we will begin to see even more changes in our films. Gender binaries are being questioned, and I hope that the future of animation allows spaces for positive queer identities, and for feminine identities to be redefined in spaces that have previously been destructive or exclusionary.”

In her contribution to the book, Wittstock shows how animation enables these ventures into new feminine figures within the horror genre.

“Emily from Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride is not simply a site of the monstrous, nor is she fully released from the objectification of the beautiful corpse. She is a subtle rendering of both, subconsciously navigating and commenting on previous feminine horror tropes. As a result, Burton refreshingly offers a powerful, alternate female horror figure, whose agency lies within ambiguity, subversion and humour of the macabre.”

But does Burton’s ‘refreshing’ nuanced take on Emily’s character make him a feminist ally?

“Yes and no. Women in horror are still incredibly objectified and undervalued, but through my argument I show how an animated character could potentially break through these problematic genre codes and conventions in a way that is unseen in other genres or film formats. I wanted my research to show the power of animation as a tool for positive social change that is often ignored or patronised due to it mistakenly being labelled as childish or naive. For me, Emily is a truly unique character and this marks a moment of change within the horror genre.”

Wittstock’s passion for her research extends to how we discuss gender in SA – a country with one of the highest femicide rates in the world. 

“We need to constantly reflect on how we are navigating gender and the ideologies that we are circulating. It is represented in different spaces, in different ways, at different times - we need to question gender everywhere. Our students don't have to agree with us, or what we’re saying, but they need to be able to back up their beliefs. They need to be able to provide evidence, they need to have opinions and a voice that is both reasonable and reasoned.” 

Gender, Supernatural Beings, and the Liminality of Death: Monstrous Males/Fatal Females is available for purchase on Amazon. 

  • Leanne Rencken is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 13th issue, themed: #Gender. We feature research across disciplines that relates to gender, feminism, masculinity, sex, sexual identity and sexual health.